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Reggie Smith

Reginald Donald Smith, always `Reggie’, was a BBC producer of such talent that he is frequently refered to as “legendary”. He was also married to the novelist, Olivia Manning. He was a card-carrying Communist for twenty years. (pic: Reggie with Olivia in later years; see below for their portayal as the semi-autobiographical  Guy and Harriet by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.) 

He spent his first and formative years in Birmingham and, throughout a long BBC career Reggie retained a love for his native city. He returned many times to make radio programmes in Birmingham and about Birmingham. Reggie also took part in television programmes about the city. Reggie was born in 1914 at 84 Wills Street, Lozells, the son of William George and Annie May Smith. His father had been a tool-maker, working in the factory of William Mills. Throughout Reggie’s childhood his farther suffered from tuberculosis and was an invalid, dying around 1940. His mother as well as bringing up three sons, scraping some money from cleaning. Reggie and his brothers, Lester Roy and Raymond, were first educated in Lozells at Angelsey Street Infants and Westminster Road Juniors, before going on to King Edward’s, Aston.

As a student at Birmingham University, Reggie was a rather controversial editor of the student magazine, The Mermaid, played cricket and rugby, and was a star actor and producer of many Dramatic Society shows and the annual Carnival Revue. He also acted with the Municipal Players. He was much influenced by the poet, and then a lecturer at the university, Louis McNeice. He, McNeice, Walter Allen, and Henry Reed jointly put on a play at the university in March 1937. Reggie also founded the Birmingham University Socialist Society. It is around this time that he appears to have joined the Communist Party.

MI5 later suspected Anthony Blunt of recruiting Reggie to spying when he visited Cambridge University in 1938. “I think I presented Anthony Blunt with a conundrum,” Smith wrote, in notes for an unwritten autobiography. “Was I rough trade or was I a gent slumming? I think that it went though his mind that I might make good spy material.”

Although it has been suggested that he was either a KGB spy or a double agent, the allegations have always been very vague and largely anecdotal. The best that can be said is that Reggie was certainly always ideally present when major events took place in several overseas places and this is mostly suggestive merely of a person able to give information about the flavour of events.

Olivia and Reggie met in real life July 1939, and they were married on August 18th 1939.  It must have been a whirlwind romance; he has been described as “a large, untidy man possessed of a boundless energy and a constant desire for the company of others”.  When he met Olivia, Reggie was on leave from his position as a British Council lecturer in Romania, a role often suspected for British Security Service informants. They moved to Bucharest on the day that Britain declared war on Germany. They were there for about a year when, just before German troops entered Romania on October 7th 1940, Olivia flew to Greece, followed a week later by Reggie. Soon after their arrival, Greece entered the war and they left for Egypt. In October 1941, Reggie was offered a post as lecturer in Alexandria. Then, another move came when, in 1942, Reggie was appointed as Controller of English and Arabic Programming at the Palestine Broadcasting Service in Jerusalem. 

Pic Olivia about the time she linked up with Reggie

Reggie arrived back in Britain in the summer of 1945 and joined BBC Radio, going on to a distinguished career making programmes for the Third Programme (`Radio 3’) and the Home Service (`Radio 4’), first in the Features Department, and then in Drama. As a radio producer, in the 1940s and 50s, Reggie worked with Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice. He produced several radio plays written by Willis Hall and was noted for giving Harold Pinter an acting job in radio in 1950, effectively starting him off on his own career.  In 1952, Reggie produced `St. Cecilia and the Shovel’, a feature dealing with industrial folk songs, written for the BBC Third Programme by Communist Ewan McColl.

As a BBC producer, Reggie did not specialise in auditions but hurled radio acting parts to those actors who most needed the money.  He was also a larger than life figure, much devoted to socialising. Both he and Olivia enjoyed an unconventional, some might say dissolute, life-style. Both indulged in affairs, but their marriage seemed sustained by Reggie’s his ever-present support for his wife's work – he read and edited early drafts, amongst other things, as well as a mutual belief that marriage should be life-long.  But there were many Communists who were, perhaps not unreasonably, concerned that Reggie’s colourful lifestyle might be damaging to the Party.

Reggie had been lucky to enter the BBC before the Cold War had started. From around 1947 until only the early 1960s, MI5 monitored editorial appointments at the BBC, stamping a green “Christmas tree” on the personnel records of suspected subversives. He came to the attention of MI5 in 1947, when both his employment at the BBC and his membership of the Communist Party was reported.

This led to a check on Smith's telephone conversations.  Many records were made of domestic conversations, including many relating to Olivia, although MI5 noted that, while she held left-wing views, “she does not appear to be a party member”. But the captured phone conversations show that she was well aware that her line was being tapped.

In one tapped telephone conversation, Olivia told a caller that she has heard a technical fault on her line, and thus has “a pretty clear idea (that) her telephone was being tapped by MI5”. Her suspicions provoked the technician to insist it was “impossible for his machines to cause interference”.

About the only thing that seemed suspicious – apart from assisting struggling creative left-wing persons with work for the BBC - were the Smiths' continuing overseas trips, particularly to Romania. Much correspondence took place between the British Foreign Office and the Secret Intelligence Services relating to this. MI5 kept watch on Reggie for over a decade

MI5 noted that Reggie was a member of several supposedly secret Communist organisations, such as the almost improbable “Albert Hall Subcommittee of the Communist Manifesto Centenary Sub-Committee”, of which he was chairman. Presumably, an organising affair related to the 1948 centenary celebrations of that publication?

MI5 also reported a conversation in which Reggie told a friend that “one of his jobs for The Daily Worker and the party was to report on personalities and friends in various houses, clubs and restaurants in the area. For this reason he was paid extra and could therefore afford the rent of his (expensive) flat.” Perhaps he was simply a source for occasional tit-bits for the paper’s gossip column, which focused on the hypocricy of lavish lifestyles? But it is as likely that this was merely a wind-up.

By 1950, MI5 reported that “Smith is regarded by the Communist Party as their best channel for getting party members on the air or employed by the BBC”. Yet some in the Party group at the BBC were critical of him. MI5 reported that it had been concluded that “Smith’s conduct is prejudicial to party interests in that a) he has made it more difficult for other Communists on the staff to serve the party in their work and b) he has not shown the stability or competence that should distinguish a party member”. MI5 officer C A G Simkins noted that “Reggie has paraded his opinions (so) flamboyantly that his friends thought that he was consequently in danger of losing his job”.  He was moved from Radio Features to Drama by the BBC because his programmes were considered too overtly left-wing.

It perhaps only ended when Reggie took the familiar route of allowing his Party membership to end through non-payment of dues, following the events of 1956-7, and, in any case, the Cold War began to fade.

In the next years, Olivia put together her trilogies based on their earlier lives together. She relied heavily on Reggie for literary judgment and general support and she immortalised him as the character `Guy Pringle’”, with her being his wife `Harriet’, in her celebrated `Balkan Trilogy’ and the linked `Levant Trilogy’, published between 1960 and 1965, although her work was extensive.

The story begins in 1939, when a Communist English lecturer, Guy Pringle, arrives in Romania with his new bride, Harriet, and becomes heavily involved in the politics of anti-fascism. Despite Harriet's misgivings, Guy's soon becomes involved with the British Secret Service, which seeks to involve him in dangerous missions. Guy and Harriet’s marriage is tested in the process.

Whilst Olivia was making her bid for fame, Reggie continued working for the BBC, despite its unofficial ban on the employment of Communists. Retiring early in 1972. a new  career took Reggie to the Universities of Ulster and then Surrey.   

Both Olivia and Reggie had died when her trilogies were given a new lease of life as TV movies. Olivia died in 1980 and Reggie followed in May 1985. A 1987 series brought Olivia considerable posthumous attention. Kenneth Branagh played Reggie’s alter ego, Guy, the bumbling hero of `Fortunes of War’, and Emma Thompson, Harriet.

 

The  biography of Reggie Smith is nearing completion.  For details contact Gerry Harrison, its author, of DrumanureKilmaley, Ennis,
County Clare, Ireland or email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it